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Starting Over

Jewish Family Service targets former upper-middle-class women in financial straits.

by Andrea Adelson

June 6, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Ellen still looks the part of a business professional. So does Francis, who is equally diligent in keeping up her appearance, and telegraphs seriousness with shoulders-straight posture.

Yet, a different picture emerges when Francis, 58, crooks a finger in her cheek to reveal a tooth missing for two years, or when Ellen, 61, lists the stress-caused medical ailments that prevent her from resuming a former job and make insecure her financial future.

Ellen and Francis (not their real names) are examples of a growing trend among formerly upper-middle-class women in their 50s and 60s, who undergo a life-crisis and plunge into financial straits. Orange County's Jewish Family Service, a social service agency that provides group and individual counseling to 7,000 clients from its $925,000 budget, has seen a 26 percent increase in pleas for assistance from women in transition in the last year, says Mel Roth, the agency's director. The agency has added a third full-time counselor to cope.

While fiscally troubled women make up only 15 percent of the agency's caseload, their needs outstrip the agency's resources, which are 23 percent funded by the Jewish Federation of Orange County. The agency intends to establish a "Jewish Women at Risk" resource center, hoping potential employers might offer job leads and the sympathetic might fund temporary stipends. "I see our solution in the Jewish community," says Charlene Edwards, the agency's director of social services.

"We have a segment of the population that's at risk," adds Marcy Middler, the agency's clinical supervisor. "This could be your mother some day; this could be your wife."

Ellen's mental state deteriorated in 1995 under the stress of a consuming middle-management job in the wireless industry, even as her second marriage faltered. She is now beset by diabetes and seizures and experienced a heart attack last year. "I'm panicked about money," she concedes, having calculated that her long-term disability insurance will end in four years and the remains of a divorce settlement run out six years later.

"I don't feel needed," Ellen says, though she has felt well enough to do some volunteer work. "I need someplace to go and be safer financially. The walls don't talk back to me."

Francis has struggled to learn computer skills since 1995, when her marriage ended and the Santa Monica gift store she long ran with her former husband closed in bankruptcy.

Too proud to apply for government assistance, she subsisted on tortillas and shopped at Goodwill. "If we can have JDate," says Francis, referring to Jewish online personal ads, "why can't we have J Jobs?"

Depression brought Francis to the agency, which opportunely had received a request from an Anaheim wholesaler seeking a Jewish secretary. She has yet to save enough, though, to pay for a dental crown and barters haircuts for cat-sitting.

No single factor pushes these formerly affluent women to a financial precipice, says Middler. Today, divorce settlements have declined and housing costs are soaring along with benefit costs, which penalizes employers for hiring older workers. The virtues of older, responsible workers are overlooked in a weak economy. In the last year, local job growth has been inadequate to even absorb new student entrants, says Esmael Adibi, professor and director of the Anderson Center for Economic Research at Chapman University. There is little job training available for older workers, Edwards says.

Typically, the agency receives appeals from college-educated women seasoned by work experience who often are told by potential employers they don't fit in. "It's humiliating and degrading," Middler says. "It's flat out age discrimination," adds Edwards.

Also, Middler sees something else. "It's the women's liberation movement backfiring," she says, suggesting a lack of appropriate resources for older women is due, in part, to cultural myopia. Older women, she says, are expected to shoulder a career and make financial sacrifices to provide for their children. "We're supposed to be rich; we're supposed to have it together," she says. "At 50, you're not supposed to be starting over."

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